FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – John L. Smith began the season coaching an Arkansas team hopeful of competing for the Southeastern Conference and national championships.
The interim coach has a far different job description with four games remaining.
Following yet another setback, this one a 30-27 defeat to Mississippi, Arkansas (3-5, 2-3 SEC) must win three of its final four games in order to reach bowl eligibility for the fourth straight season. The latest loss was a stinging blow for the Razorbacks, who had won two in a row and believed they had recovered from an earlier four-game losing streak.
Smith's job is to now make sure an already injury-riddled Arkansas team doesn't lose faith and go through the motions for the remainder of the season. His focus is to make sure the Razorbacks keep theirs and that they don't look ahead to the offseason, the pending hire of a new coach or the NFL.
"I think you do that every year, all year long anyway," Smith said. "I think that's just part of it. And making sure that our guys go to the field and actually focus and concentrate on what it is we have to do today."
Smith's difficulty in keeping the focus of an Arkansas team weary of losing — one that's now equaled its loss total for the previous two seasons combined — became all the more difficult Monday.
He said tight end Chris Gragg and running back Knile Davis will miss this week's game with Tulsa (7-1, 5-0 Conference USA). Gragg reinjured bruised leg bone against the Rebels that had kept him out of the previous three games, while Davis injured his right hamstring in the loss.
The Golden Hurricane have lost 17 straight to the Razorbacks. However, Tulsa has won seven straight this season since an opening loss at Iowa State and leads the nation in sacks — providing a suddenly difficult test for an Arkansas team that has proven anything but a sure thing this season.
The Razorbacks' fall from the preseason top 10 started with a then-shocking loss to Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 8. That started the four-game losing streak in the team's first season following April's firing of former coach Bobby Petrino.
The latest loss now means Arkansas must win three of four games against teams (Tulsa, South Carolina, Mississippi State and LSU) that are a combined 28-5 in order to reach a bowl. Smith, for one, still believes that's possible.
"There never have been very many games we go into thinking that we're going to get our tail kicked," Smith said. "There's not going to be any from here on out, definitely. We believe that we're going to go in and win it. And it has to start now."
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson's only losing season dating to high school, when he won three state championships at Greenwood, Ark., was a 5-7 mark during his first year with the Razorbacks in 2008. That was also Petrino's first season, but Wilson refused to place the blame for Arkansas' struggles on his former coach or anyone but himself.
"I feel like that's the coward's way out," Wilson said.
Wilson struggled against Ole Miss, throwing a pair of interceptions and narrowly avoiding several others. He threw for 297 yards but finished 24 of 43 passing and was fortunate the Rebels couldn't keep their hands on several other passes that fell incomplete.
The senior blamed himself for the near misses afterward, as well as for missing other open receivers. He said the losing this season has been an adjustment but that he's continuing to look for ways to motivate the Razorbacks.
Wilson, who elected to bypass a likely high draft pick in April's NFL draft, also said he hasn't seen any looking ahead by teammates to the offseason.
"We've still got four games left," Wilson said. "So you'd be looking ahead quite a bit if you're looking ahead. "We've got a big game this week."